Nutrition for Athletes: Q&A with Rhea Black by Jessie Thomas

Rhea Black is a co-owner, personal trainer, and now health coach at Momentum Athletic Training. She recently finished a program from Institute of Integrative Nutrition. As a coach, Rhea wants her clients and fellow athletes to succeed. She knows good nutrition doesn’t just make you healthy, she knows good nutrition supports a variety of bodily systems. Long term nutrition, adrenal, and gut health can positively or negatively affect an athlete at every angle and addressing those items can translate to better performance and longevity. Next to stress management and sleep, good nutrition is the most efficient way to support long term health and athletic performance. Catching up with Rhea, this is what she had to say:

As a personal trainer, what prompted you to seek more information about nutrition?
In the 10 years that I have run Momentum, I have seen many people working very hard physically to achieve their athletic goals without an understanding of how equally important nutrition becomes to the success or failure of meeting those goals. I feel like many people think about nutrition a few days before an event, but it's too late by then. It's how you feed your body 80% of the time- over the long term that gets big results. By results, I mean lower body fat %, more lean muscle, more energy and generally healthier =more training days and that is success. 

Adrenals:break it down...
The adrenals are tiny glands that produce many hormones that help regulate our bodies normal functioning. Cortisol is an important hormone produced by the adrenals when the body experiences stress. It acts as an anti-inflammatory and helps to regulate glucose (sugar) response to stress when produced in moderation. When produced in excess, adrenaline is produced as well. As a result: healthy immune function is compromised and causes compromised digestion, poor sleep (the 2 am wake-up), over-production of other hormones and this can lead to a host of problems. Athletes usually notice fatigue, inflammation, anxiety and poor sleep at the onset. 

Over-training or too many high-intensity workouts, poor diet, lack of sleep (7 hours or less on an ongoing basis) and emotional stress can be factors. 

An athlete can manage adrenal fatigue by seriously addressing the following:

1. Reduce training- if you are tired- stop and rest! Or slow down, don't do any high intensity workouts and keep your heart rate in the target heart rate zone- usually between 130-140 bpm for all workouts until you feel better. Yes, this means slow running or hiking. You should be able to talk comfortably while exercising.

2. Reduce sugar and simple carbohydrate intake drastically! This means, no white foods (pastas, white bread as examples), candy, sugary drinks, etc. you need to read labels. If it has more than 5 grams of sugar per serving- you don't need it.

3. GET SOME SLEEP! Make a conscious effort to get sleep. 8 hours at a minimum. Take naps if you can. 

4. Eat healthy fats (see below).

How important is nutrition to athletic performance, not just on race day, but over time?
It is critically important. How you feed your body really determines long term success. You may initially get away with it, especially if you are younger or have great genetics, but over time, poor nutrition will lead to reduced performance, injuries, and in some cases severe nutritional deficiencies. Anemia (iron deficiency) being an example. I look at nutrition like this: If you want to improve your performance or lose weight, or feel more energy, and even be happier- what you feed your body directly impacts that. As the saying goes-you are what you eat- literally. 

What changes can an athlete make today to make the most of their training?
There is so much information coming at us today about "the right" way to eat. There's paleo, primal, veganism, vegetarianism, etc. It's very confusing. Athletes need to remember this: keep it simple. EAT REAL FOOD.  If you are a meat eater, fine. Just consume the highest quality grass-fed meats you can find. If you are a vegetarian then make sure you are eating getting healthy high quality proteins and fats along with all of those vegetables. organic beans, dairy that is organic or grass- fed, organic coconut oil or organic olive oil are good fat and /or protein sources, as examples.

Don't rely on protein powders, bars, energy drinks etc. as they are not beneficial over the long term. They are great for race day or longer training days or when fresh food is temporarily un-available. Athletes should be thinking about eating simple, high quality foods that are nutritionally dense 80% of the time. Examples are: Eggs, nuts, full fat dairy, grass fed meats, lots of green vegetables, berries, sweet potatoes and avoiding sugar whenever possible. When I say 80% of the time- it allows for days when you need a break or don't have healthy options. 

Food timing is also important. There is a lot of information here, but I always remind athletes to fuel immediately (within the hour) after intense or longer training sessions. Eating real food that is a blend of healthy proteins, fats and carbohydrates is ideal.

Finally, really limiting sugar intake as it contributes to chronic inflammation in the body. I suggest no more than 25 grams per day- max. You will have to read labels. 1 sugar cube = 4 grams! Most athletes are consuming gels and energy drinks when they are completely unnecessary. Water is all you need for 1 hour sessions -if you have fueled your body properly prior to training. On longer days, you will be taking in more than 25 grams most likely, but the thing to remember is that you will be immediately burning it off. If this is not the case, then you don't need it. 

What are 3 of the most important nuggets you have walked away with from your program:

1. Establishing a healthy eco-system in your gut is really important.  If you do this, you will absorb nutrients better, you will definitely improve your energy, you will have regular, healthy elimination and you will be healthier. Taking a daily, high quality pro-biotic is key.

2. Really reducing sugar intake. The research is out- it's fatal. It contributes to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, strokes and obesity. It has absolutely no benefit to the body outside of short term energy gain. It's a deep subject as it is used so heavily when racing, but whenever you can avoid it- you should. Look at the content of sugar in the food you eat: if it’s more than 5 grams; you don’t need it.

3. Eating lots of vegetables of all colors. As an athlete, they are mineral rich, antioxidative, nutrient and fiber dense, and the best way to ensure that you are replacing nutrition lost in heavy training. 

How can diet help an athlete manage their training through cold and flu season:

Adding a few things to our daily nutrition can really help reduce lost training time to increased chances of catching a cold or the flu during the winter.

Many of the foods we have easy access to during the summer are harder to find "fresh" in the winter especially in the winter. So with that in mind, here are some recommendations:

Continue to try and consume as many fresh, vegetables of all colors.

Increase your intake of essential fatty acids- mostly omega 3 (olive oil, avocados, grass- fed butter, raw nuts and seeds, and egg yolks from pastured hens as examples) and a small amount of omega 6 (grass- fed beef, whole grains, almonds and coconut oil as examples.) 

Consider taking a Vitamin D supplement. We lack sun in the winter here and most people can benefit from additional Vitamin D intake. Get a blood test to determine how deficient you are and then you will know how much you should be taking. 

I personally juice fresh ginger and drink it as a potent hot tea. It is a great immune booster and is excellent for improving circulation in the colder months!

For more information visit Rhea at:


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